Public or Private? the Pope Squat and Housing Struggles in Toronto

By Lehrer, Ute; Winkler, Andrea | Social Justice, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Public or Private? the Pope Squat and Housing Struggles in Toronto


Lehrer, Ute, Winkler, Andrea, Social Justice


WHEN IN THE SUMMER OF 2002 THE WORLD' S MEDIA ATTENTION WAS ON TORONTO, thanks to the visit of Pope John Paul II, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) used this moment to draw attention to their fight against poverty and homelessness in Canada's largest city. With relatively wide support from other activist groups, this direct action group squatted in a house in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood and created a lively counter-public sphere. The squatters were evicted from the building after three months, but this direct action succeeded insofar as it drew attention to, and raised critical awareness of, the housing crisis in Toronto. It also questioned the dominant ideology about what is public and what is private, and laid open the contradictions of a neoliberal political framework that takes many forms. In this sense, though OCAP responded with direct actions to place-specific conditions, it raised questions that transcend the local level. Therefore, this direct action group can be situated within the context of anti-poverty and anti-homelessness groups and within the broader scope of social movements fighting against global capitalism.

In this article, we describe and analyze the Pope Squat as a direct action to resist privatization processes in Toronto and an attempt to build a broad-based coalition capable of combating policies that drive neoliberal urbanism. We then discuss public and private space, describe Toronto's housing policy and the gentrification process there, and detail the story of the Pope Squat. We argue that the housing crisis for low-income people in Toronto results from the dominant ownership model, (1) which allows speculation and is based on a legalistic understanding of space, and from the rediscovery of urban downtown living in the form of a condominium boom. As part of a neoliberal agenda, diminishing housing options for low-income people are the consequence.

Public or Private?

What is public and what is private can be defined in very different terms. In the case of land, the capitalist model is based on the understanding that all land--a limited good--can be partitioned off and turned into a commodity, which then responds to the mantra of supply and demand, expressed in a fluctuating exchange value. Though not all land is directly part of the capitalist logic of property value, now, under the regime of neoliberalism, public land is increasingly understood to be a commodity with a defined exchange value. A current example in Canada is a proposal to give away public land within a national park for private-sector condominium developments. Enraged by this selling out of the public to private investors, over 1,000 people protested on a cold, rainy day in Montreal in April 2006. In contrast, the use value of land is much more important in many non- and pre-capitalist societies. It is most clearly defined by First Nation People, who understand land as a common good, for everyone currently alive and for future and past generations.

The hegemonic understandings and practices relating to property affect legal deliberations, social discourse, and government interventions. In Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of Property, Nick Blomley points to the dominant approaches to property, which "assume that ownership rights are created at one moment in time and immutable thereafter. However, it is useful to recognize that property is not a static, pre-given entity, but depends on a continual, active 'doing.' Property is therefore an enactment, or a communicative claim to others" (2004: xvi).

In this sense, property is the articulation of an ownership practice upon land, and like space, it is socially constructed, necessitating the cooperation of actors and institutions to enforce and reproduce it. Ownership, or claim, to these spaces is enacted in a number of material practices, such as land use and zoning maps, deeds, titles, signs, and regular use. …

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